Oct 21, 2010, 3:30 PM EDT
There’s been so much lately on the nature of Philly fandom — hey look! It’s another “they booed Santa” screed! — but I feel at least one more thing needs to be said. Not by me, though. By reader and Philadelphian TC Shillingford, who sent me a note yesterday explaining the Santa incident and so much more about Philly fans than most people usually consider. And yes, fans of every city have their own creation story and their own quirks that arise from it. Philly’s just seems more in need of telling at the moment, so I yield the floor to TC.
Philadelphia used to be the capital of the US, of course, the hub of government and business, and one of the city’s earliest and wealthiest fellows was Stephen Girard (he owned the First Bank of the US). Yellow fever broke out in the 1790s in Philly, and the upper class largely moved away from the city. Girard moved the financial institutions that eventually became Wall St to New York, and a number of government agencies to DC. When the outbreak ended, he prevented them from returning to Philly, saying that New York would be the financial city, DC the government city, and Philly would be the village in between. Of course, the way it worked out, people wanted to live a little closer to where they worked, and despite Girard giving most of his fortune to the considerable poor in the city, since the 1830s (when Girard died), Philadelphia has been a low-income city with ongoing identity issues, living in the twin shadows of NYC and DC. It’s a great city, and I love it here, but one of the most troubling things about Philly is how deeply self-loathing it can be. Philly is a pretty girl with low self-esteem who keeps going out with some lousy guy because every once in a while he says she’s pretty.
Anyway, Santa Claus. In 1968, the Phillies finished 7th in the NL that year. The 76ers had just traded Wilt Chamberlain to the Lakers. And worse than any of them, were the Eagles. (My father used to have the ability to express the moment in which any Philadelphia sports year became a disappointment, and so I’m doing all this based off his recollections).
Going into the game, the Eagles were something like 2-10, and played so poorly the two wins seemed like miracles. The weather was awful–cold rain and wet, heavy snow. Fans showed up to protest the team with signs about firing the head coach, getting rid of the owner, everything. The original jolly St Nick hadn’t made it to Franklin Field due to the inclement weather, and so the Eagles found some kid off the street to fill in. He looked terrible, ramshackle. For the fans in the stands, blue collar, lower middle class people who were paying money to see one of the NFL’s worst teams, seeing that Santa was a slap in the face. They had no way of knowing that this Santa was not the intended Santa. From the stands, it looked like these incompetent owners were rubbing the fans noses in it. If they wanted to watch football, they were stuck with the Eagles, and lousy fans get a lousy team, and on Christmas, they get a lousy Santa. That’s what it felt like. Like a “fuck you”, from the team to the fans. And so they booed, they threw snowballs.
And somehow, that story has been repeated over and over again as the hallmark of Philadelphia FANS: that they’re so brutal they boo Santa Claus. In Philly, when we’re not tearing our hairs out after hearing it every time a team does something stupid and worthy of national attention, it’s a story about how Philly fans have constantly had to take it up the ass from the teams they root for. The Eagles and Phillies, especially, but the Sixers, too (the Flyers play hockey, but they’ve had the decency to be competitive virtually every year they’ve been in the league).
So, I don’t know if Philly fans are really worse than other places. I’ve never personally seen anything so bad in Philly as the time I saw a man punch a pregnant lady in Shea Stadium. In Philly, famously, batteries were thrown at JD Drew, responding to another (perceived) slight. In San Diego, less famously, at least one fan threw a real syringe at Barry Bonds. Maybe it’s because almost every year someone in Philly has to get tased, has to vomit on a child, that only in Philly was there a court in the stadium. I don’t know.
I don’t personally feel this Philadelphia insecurity. New York can be amazing and so can Philadelphia, and just because someone thinks the Giants will win the NLCS doesn’t mean Philly is lame. But I think the insecurity, the subconscious belief that all of this is soon to fall apart (at least, with regards to the Phillies’ success) or that history will look upon it as a fluke, is common in the city, and, sadly, in so many ways, all too easy to explain. The Phillies went 100 years before they won their first World Series, and 28 more before they won their second. And each year we won’t win, all we seem to be left with is a reputation that this is not a safe place for children or for Santa.